Brush fire prompts evacuation of Los Angeles observatory

By Steve Gorman
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Firefighters work on a fire near the landmark Griffith Observatory in the hills overlooking Los Angeles

Firefighters work on a fire near the landmark Griffith Observatory in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, California, U.S. July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The landmark Griffith Observatory, a popular tourist attraction in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, was evacuated on Tuesday due to a brush fire that scorched a nearby swath of the surrounding park, authorities said.

The blaze erupted shortly after 2 p.m. (2100 GMT) and charred 10 acres of drought-parched chaparral and grass on the slopes of Griffith Park at the edge of the observatory grounds before firefighters brought the flames under control about 90 minutes later, fire officials said.

No injuries were reported from the fire, which followed a weekend heat wave that baked Los Angeles and much of the rest of Southern California, causing widespread power outages and contributing to a destructive wildfire in Santa Barbara County.

The fire in Griffith Park burned to within a quarter-mile of the observatory but never posed a direct threat to the building, which is situated on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood, according to city fire department spokesman Brian Humphrey.

Authorities, however, decided to evacuate the site "out of an abundance of caution," Humphrey said. A pall of smoke from the blaze was visible throughout much of the surrounding metropolitan area.

About 600 to 700 visitors and staff were in the building at the time of the evacuation, observatory museum guide Juan Gutierrez told Reuters by telephone.

Gutierrez said he saw flames burning "pretty close" to outdoor restrooms located near the parking lot outside the main observatory entrance and along a road leading up to the site.

It was the third time the observatory was evacuated in the past two months because of a fire, Gutierrez said, adding that he overheard one park ranger say to another that the latest blaze appeared to have been ignited by a careless smoker.

Humphrey said the cause of the fire was under investigation.

The observatory, dedicated to astronomy for public viewing and education rather than research, was opened in 1935 and draws about 1.5 million visitors a year to Griffith Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the United States.

Providing a real-life backdrop for various Hollywood movies ranging from "Rebel Without a Cause" to "La La Land," Griffith Park was the scene of a 1933 wildfire that killed 29 people, ranking as the single deadliest blaze on record in California.

The 4,300-acre park and observatory are both named for Griffith J. Griffith, an investor and developer who donated much of the land to the city of Los Angeles in the late 1890s before he was tried, convicted and sent to prison for shooting his wife in the eye. Left blind and disfigured, she divorced him.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Leslie Adler)